My response to this question won’t work for everyone, but I think most parents can adapt it to explain the beliefs they want to convey to their child. You also can learn from my experience and avoid leaving out a crucial fact about death, as I did!
Nicholas first asked about death a few weeks after he turned three years old. I had always expected that the question would come up after he heard about someone dying, but in fact it followed close on the heels of, “Where do babies come from?”–a question I addressed only briefly that first time because Nicholas almost immediately moved on to asking, “How do we make room for new people? What happens to the old ones?”
I explained that when a person’s body gets old and worn-out, or if a person is so badly hurt or sick that the body can’t be fixed and can’t work anymore, then the person dies. This means that the body is still there, but the thinking, feeling, active part of the person is gone.
Then I came to the pause point. Despite having the kind of child who usually wants to know every detail about things, I try to pause at the point when I have answered the most basic question. He might be satisfied, or he might have more questions. Regarding death, some children will want to know what happens to the body, and some will want to know what happens to the “self” or soul. Nicholas asked about both, soul first.
We are Episcopalians, and I believe that what our church teaches about death might well be true, but I also think it’s hubris to believe that we living humans understand it completely. So the first part of my answer was, “Nobody knows exactly. It’s a big mystery! We trust God to take good care of us after we die, but we won’t know how it all works until it happens to us.”
I went on to explain that we have some information from what Jesus told people during his time on Earth. Jesus said [paraphrased], “In God’s house are many rooms. When I die and go away from you, I will get your rooms ready for you.” Jesus said that at the end of the world, we’ll all get back into our bodies and live again. Nicholas clarified that when Jesus came back to life at Easter, that was not the end of the world–that’s right; the world has gone on for thousands of years since then, and we don’t know how much longer it will go on, but even after it is finished there will be something else. God goes on forever, and Jesus said that we also will live forever, just in a different way. It will be interesting to find out what that is like, won’t it?
Then Nicholas asked what happens to a person’s body; do we put it in the compost? I explained that a body does turn into dirt, like compost, but it happens slowly and smells bad, so we put it in a hole underground. Usually human bodies are buried in a special park called a cemetery so that they won’t get dug up by accident. Another way is to burn the body and turn it into ashes.
Nicholas was satisfied with this explanation, so we didn’t talk about it again until two months later, when a family friend died after a sad series of medical complications. Nicholas had known John was very sick, so he wasn’t surprised when I told him the news. He said, “John is in his room in God’s house. He’s helping Jesus get rooms ready for the rest of his family when they die.” (I had a mental image of John and Jesus making a bed together, which cheered me up a bit.)
I told Nicholas we could attend the funeral, “a church service for saying thank you to God for making John so that we could know him, saying goodbye to John, and asking God to please take good care of him.” Nicholas was eager to go.
Do you see what I had forgotten to say? I guess I thought it was obvious, but it wasn’t.
What I thought was the crucial thing I’d forgotten was warning Nicholas that the funeral might include viewing of the body. I, who did not attend a funeral until the age of 14, find open caskets so disturbing that maybe I just blocked out the whole idea that we might be subjected to one. In fact, yes, the service began with the casket being carried to the front of the room and opened. I explained that John’s body was in the box. Nicholas was surprised when the box was opened, but he was not frightened. He stood up on the pew to get a better look. “It looks like John, but it’s empty, and so white,” he whispered. For several weeks afterward, he frequently mentioned “that empty John” but was just sort of intrigued, not upset.
In fact, he felt very positive about the whole thing: John is not sick and hurting anymore; he’s in a nice room in God’s house hanging out with Jesus; he doesn’t need his body anymore, so it’s going to help the flowers grow; when we die, we’ll be with him again.
So he was surprised that people were sad. The mood of sadness, not just solemnity, was noticeable from the moment we arrived at the church. Some people began crying soon after the service began. At the end, when the widow and nine-year-old daughter walked up the aisle following the casket, they were sobbing and wailing, and at that point I started to cry too. Nicholas was scared. What was wrong?! Didn’t they know about the room in God’s house?! I explained that although we know the good things, we also feel sad that John is not with us right here and now. For his family, especially, it just feels impossible that their home and their lives could ever be right without him; they will feel better after a while, but right now it feels like a big hole in the world. When I saw them so upset, I felt bad for them and I thought about how terrible I would feel if this happened to me, so that is why I was crying.
Afterward, I told Nicholas I was sorry I had not explained that people would be sad. I asked if he would rather not have seen all that sadness. He was surprised: “I love Fanny. I wanted to be there at her sad time so that I could give her a hug.” (He did.) So it worked out for him. But if I ever have another child to explain to, I’ll be sure to say that people get sad when our loved ones die. That’s important to know!